In the short story “To Room Nineteen” by Doris Lessing, Susan Rawlings is a woman living what seems like the perfect life with the perfect marriage. However, it soon becomes clear that Susan isn’t as happy with her life as one might think upon first glance. Slowly but surely, Susan begins to drift away from her home life in attempts to find freedom through solitude. This reaction can be analyzed by taking a closer look at how Susan relates to the places in her life such as her beautiful home with her family and the small hotel room to which she escapes. Reading the fifth chapter of Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place alongside “To Room Nineteen” helps us to understand the counterintuitive notions of space and freedom Lessing describes in her story. In this way, Tuan’s insight helps us recognize Susan’s fear of responsibility and desire for freedom as they relate to the places in her life.
From the outside, it seems as though Susan lives the ideal life with a big house and a beautiful garden for her children and loving husband. However, as the story progresses, we see that Susan becomes more and more “reluctant to enter her big beautiful home” (Lessing 530). This same attractive, picture-perfect house begins to push Susan away, for in it are the many responsibilities that come with adult-life and motherhood. The more these responsibilities weighed down on Susan, the more it felt “as if something was waiting for her there she did not wish to confront” (530). This seems strange because, typically, “spaciousness is closely associated with [freedom]” as Tuan explains in Space and Place (52). By this logic, one would think that Susan would feel plenty free in her big home with the spacious, lush garden to wander through. However, although “freedom implies space,” space does not always imply freedom (52). What Susan truly needed was space from her family, and freedom from her responsibilities.
This becomes evident when Susan takes her vacation to the mountains in Wales. Physically, she had all the space in the world, from huge mountains to tall skies and deep valleys. But with her family calling her multiple times a day, Susan felt like “the telephone wire [was] holding her to her duty like a leash” (Lessing 538). Tuan explains this phenomenon by stating that “solitude is broken not so much by the number of organisms in nature as by the sense of busy-ness—including busy-ness of the mind” (61). This is exactly what Susan felt, for although she was alone physically, her family weighed down on her mind constantly, ruining her sense of solitude. Though they tried to be helpful and supportive, Susan’s family couldn’t understand this critical concept. Had they been able to go a few days without calling her or without Mrs. Parkes nagging her with household business, perhaps Susan’s vacation would have appeased her craving for solitude. Alas, the opportunity was spoiled and Susan returned to her home feeling more exhausted than when she had left.
For all of these reasons, Susan felt it necessary to seek out Room 19 in Fred’s Hotel. This was Susan’s escape, not because it was a vast, open land like the mountains were, but because no one knew she was there. It didn’t even matter that “the room was hideous” because “she was free” (Lessing 541). The room she was shown was small and dingy, with only one small window and cheap looking sheets on the sole bed that was there. All Susan needed was to be “alone and with no one knowing where [she was]” (Lessing 537). In this way Susan’s relationship with the dreary motel room allows us to understand the counterintuitive notion of freedom as relating to space. This was the only place she could get away from herself and be free. Here, “she was no longer Susan Rawlings… she had no past, no future” and it had nothing to do at all with physical space (542). Instead, it was the cramped little motel room that gave Susan her freedom, giving us insight as to why she searched out Room 19.
We also saw something interesting in the scene where Susan meets Mrs. Townsend. The presence of just one other person ruined Susan’s entire attempt at solitude. Here, we can compare Susan to the pianist Tuan discusses on page fifty-nine of his book. He explains that for a shy pianist practicing alone in a room, the presence of just one person shatters his world and forces him to stop his work immediately. Like the pianist, Susan’s solitude was obviously tarnished by the presence of others. Tuan touches on this idea as well when he says that “the company of human beings—even [one] other person—has the effect of curtailing space” (59). He explains that when we are alone, we can allow our thoughts to “wander freely over space,” but that “in the presence of others, [our thoughts] are pulled back by an awareness of other personalities who project their own world onto the same area” (59).
Another crucial aspect of Susan’s solitude wasn’t just that no one was around, but that no one knew where she was. Tuan explains why Susan’s solitude is tarnished even with someone’s mere knowledge of her location, saying that “crowding is an awareness that one is observed” (60). Once Susan felt that her husband was keeping a close eye on her, the feeling she got from the room “was not the same, [for] her husband had searched her out” (544). Her husband’s suspicions were completely understandable, but at the same time, had he respected Susan’s need to be away, perhaps her hunger for solitude would have remained sated by the little motel room she had found.
It also becomes clear throughout the story that Susan desperately needed to escape her household responsibilities in addition to her family. Between hiring a fulltime au pair girl and running off to London for the hotel, it is clear that Susan had no interest in being with her family at home. Even when she was home for supper, all she could think about was how desperate she was to be alone again. The association she made between her responsibilities and her house drove her away to be in Room 19 where she was completely alone and hidden from the outside world. There, she could let go of her life completely for the duration of the day and go back to pretending to love her home life at night.
By understanding Susan’s relationships to her spaces, we can understand her need to escape the life she built for herself. Her detachment to her beautiful home signifies the way she let go of the perfect life she created with her family while her need for Room 19 highlights how much she wished to be completely alone. Once her husband found her out, the solitude that Susan had searched for so desperately was tarnished. After this, Susan felt cornered into escaping life altogether. No amount of space could satisfy her, because now it seemed that her family would find her even in the smallest and most hidden of places. The only way Susan could leave her life behind completely was by taking it herself, and she finds this permanent escape in Room 19, the only place that allowed her to be completely free.